Inspirations – Survival Games, Subnautica and Valheim

Hey! New blog series ideas, here we go!

Here I want to talk about one or two pieces of art, often related or a series, a medium or just a place to go to get a wealth of ideas. How these things (for lack of a better word) influenced my writing, gave me inspiration and how some ideas get remolded in my brain. I hope showing you great pieces of art and how they can stir the creative process.

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For this first piece I want to talk about what has become one of my favourite genres of gaming; SURVIVAL GAMES.

And my two favourites are Subnautica and Valheim. One is a sci-fi survival game on an ocean planet, the other is a fantasy epic in Viking purgatory.

Here’s the important aspect of survival gameplay I want to establish; after the first section of any survival game, after the initial fight for food, water, shelter and tools the world begins to open up.

Valheim / Iron Gate

In Subnautica, it is after you build your first base, discover the scans for the seamoth and begin to explore beyond the safe shallows and its neighbouring biomes. In Valheim it is after the first boss, when you expand into the Black Forest and later the Swamps. Moving from the stone age, to the bronze and iron ages.

This is the point in the game when you have your home (your place of safety) but you need new resources in more dangerous places.

In Valheim, I must sail to new biomes to find sources of metal which are used to make armour, tools and upgrades. In Subnautica, I have to dive deeper into new biomes to find rarer elements and technology, which expand my oxygen and depth capacities. Good gameplay makes the resource gathering always contribute directly to game play.

This sounds a lot like a character in a place of comfort with motivation to leave and find something. Please see The Hero’s Journey or Story Wheel to see what I mean.

The Hero’s Journey

In these games; you then adventure out, often facing new dangers, new enemies. You search for your new resources (your goal) and if you succeed you gain your rewards and return home, which can sometimes be more difficult than you think. Your character (you) must use all the tools you have, your wit and will to succeed. At the end, you find what you are searching for and must return home changed.

Through gameplay, these games create entire mini-plot arcs within the overarching plot of the game. There is a motivation, a dive into unfamiliar territory, danger, rewards and the return journey. These are not clean and always satisfying plots with a perfect 3-act structure, but most gamers would agree the immense relief when your base comes into focus.

Subnautica / Unknown Worlds

In Subnautica, going out to find one resource in a distant cave, meeting new lifeforms and narrowly avoiding death (restarting this plot as you are sent back to your base when killed) can be intense and terrifying. Each exchange with a leviathan is a heart-stopping monster set-piece in a story and each new artifact is a piece of the unraveling mystery.

Subnautica has exceptionally strong writing for a game with a mute protagonist and relies on giving its story almost entirely through audio-logs and scan data from the environment. Every piece of information is isolated from context, and only through the player’s actions can you piece it together. This leaves much of the story in the player’s own imagination rather than telling the story.

In Valheim, you often have the same arc, but with more intense calculated risks. In Valheim, you cannot move metal easily (it is heavy, cannot be teleported and must be processed), it is also what allows you to build armor, weapons and more efficient bases. You carry a limited amount of food that directly effects your ability to handle threats (food determines your health and stamina). If you die, you drop everything you were carrying and lose a portion of your skills. You must then trek back to find your equipment again.

This creates organic storytelling in a fantasy world where the protagonist (you) must venture forth to find artifacts, metals, treasures, battle monsters and undead using your wit and skills to succeed.

You see how the rhythms of a survival sandbox game creates organic storytelling that can inspire your own adventures in writing or roleplaying. One could create a novelization of these games, but I think it would be more useful to understand the power of these games to inform and inspire your own storytelling.

This is the point of this blog, finding inspiration in places and understanding how inspirations form new life in our imaginations.

Some of the difference between these games are that Subnautica does not reward you for conflict. No large animal that can threaten you rewards you for slaying it. All you’ve done is kill an animal that was behaving naturally. Whenever a player goes out to slay a Reaper Leviathan because of all the other times that creature scared you senseless… that is only petty vengeance. It doesn’t reward you. It’s just a dead animal. This is why most of Subnautica’s tools are about evasion and escape, not combat. Which was both a gameplay choice and a political statement by the creators about American gun violence.

What this does for me as a storyteller, is create moments of INTENSE terror. This is what has made Subnautica popular and is probably its most noteworthy aspect… it’s FUCKING scary. The ocean is scary, being underwater is scary, and everything about Subnautica is scary before you even add the monsters. For a deeper analysis to how Subnautica scares you, here is an excellent video essay.

For a genre storyteller, Subnautica is a perfect example of terror, mystery and satisfying world-building built into story and gameplay.

Once, when escaping a tunnel system in my massive submarine, I exited in a biome I had rarely explored. I didn’t know exactly where I was, only the direction I had to go to return home… so I put my submarine on silent mode, turned off all the lights and slowly made my way to safety.

The tension was real to me, my heart raced, my hands were sweaty… I watched the sonar… I pushed the engines as fast as they can go under the circumstances… then my sub picked up a contact on the sonar. The sirens blared. I switched to full-ahead and barreled through pure black water towards safety. I never once saw the leviathan. I never knew what attacked me. All I know is when I reached safety… my sub had nearly been destroyed. All those resources and equipment would have been lost. The stakes, goal, trials, tension and terror were all experienced through gameplay.

And that is something that I can now use to inform my writing.

Valheim / Iron Gate

Valheim is more traditional in many ways, you are largely on land, fighting mobs, collecting rewards etc… it is just a very well-polished version of those mechanics (and it is still in early access with more updates coming!). It still has that tension and terror that Subnautica has… whenever I’m trekking through a biome I may here a call, a noise or see a silhouette in the background and the terror of knowing that may happen and that will be a threat is another perfect case study for writers.

You see how the organic world of a sandbox survival game can create story and character naturally? How these common gameplay tropes can be immensely effective when done well.

While replaying games reduce this tension, remembering my terror helps inspire my horror stories and monster set-pieces. It shows me how I can be scared in a game and therefore how I can scare others in writing.

Simply asking what scares me, informs how I can scare YOU.

So next time you’re playing a game and a certain section of gameplay really affects you, consider using it as the basis to a scene or short story. See how you can transfer the feelings the game brought you and if you’re able to bring it to a reader.

Also go play Subnautica and Valheim.

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Thank you!

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